From Handlebars to Horns
By Flannery Gallagher
Most of the paintings of Pablo Picasso are often known for being filled with passionate, sexual undertones, and many of the women featured are known to have been his lovers at some point. Picasso’s sculptures on the other hand, while incorporating his stylistic traditions, introduce a playful side to his portfolio. Constructing imaginative scenes out of objects that he frequently found in landfills, or on the street, Picasso shows the ability of the artist to render a new meaning out of something that has already been defined and, sometimes, discarded. Here, three of his works, Little Girl Jumping Rope (1950-1954), Bull’s Head (1942), and Baboon and Young (1951), will be examined to bring to attention how completely unrelated objects can come together to create a work of art. All three of these works were featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s Picasso Sculpture exhibit, which I was able to view on a guided tour in 2016. At the time, I was in my first art history class, and my teacher, constructed a whole unit on the significance of Picasso’s sculptures in reference to the rest of his art. Therefore, I will additionally be examining why Picasso’s artistic personality seems to be different in his sculptures, and what his creation of a new medium (sculptures that are built, rather than carved or molded) demonstrates about the importance of media.
Little Girl Jumping Rope, 1950-1954, is held together by a piece of iron tubing shaped like a jump rope, which Picasso specially commissioned in order to make the work appear to defy gravity. It has been cast in bronze, but the elements of the original that make it so unique are still noticeable- the basket used to make her torso, and the chocolate box used for her face. Among his personal circle, it was known that Picasso had a tendency, on his way to his studio each day, to stop by a garbage dump and scavenge for materials that he could reuse. Here, his use of the basket and chocolate box, along with real shoes on her feet, creates an image that is easily recognizable as a young girl, while keeping with Picasso’s tendency to make an everyday scene uncommon. This is one of the most important aspects of Picasso’s use of ready-made objects: the ability to recreate the purpose of something. Where most people would have seen a discarded basket, Picasso was able to construct a torso; while you are supposed to see a little girl playing, you are not meant to assume that she is from a commonplace setting. He goes far to provide details that make her seem more realistic, such as the bow in her hair, the flower at her feet, and her vague facial features. However, her body, made out of simple forms that once had a different purpose, remind you that you are looking at a sculpture, and nothing more.
Bull’s Head, 1942, is in some ways comical in its simplicity. All it took for Picasso to make it was the removal of the handlebars and seat of a bicycle. The handlebars cleverly provide horns, while the curved seat juts forward, giving the impression of a sharp jaw line separating the animal’s head from its body. Similar to Little Girl Jumping Rope, it shows the characteristic which made Picasso’s art stand out: the use of new media in a traditional setting. Unlike Little Girl Jumping Rope, Picasso has left Bull’s Head free of any defining characteristics besides the “horns” created out of handlebars. Also, the title of Bull’s Head does most of the work in explaining what the sculpture actually depicts; unlike in Little Girl Jumping Rope, where the found objects were hidden in the final product, here, Picasso makes no effort to change the appearance of the handlebars and seat. The viewer is supposed to understand what this work is, without the use of obvious imagery. This furthers the idea that Picasso’s media (here, the bicycle parts) are meant to remind his viewers of something while forcing them to look at it in a new way. When looking at this work, it is not hard to guess what animal inspired it; what is meant to be considered is how Picasso could have looked at a bicycle and decided he would construct part of a bull out of it.
Baboon and Young, 1951, is of the three works mentioned possibly the most unique in how its parts relate to each other. Using two toy cars for the head, cup handles for the ears, and a large jug for the torso and shoulders, Picasso was able to render a baboon mother cradling her baby. Here, as in Little Girl Jumping Rope, Picasso has managed to disguise each individual part of the sculpture in his production of the final image, and similar to his other sculptures, each individual part is in no way related to the ultimate product; he has taken almost completely unrelated household objects and transformed them into a depiction of maternal care. Picasso manages to make the whole seem natural in relation to its parts; in other words, when looking at this work, you are immediately able to recognize what it is showing, rather than question why a small car is sitting on top of a round jug. Here, in comparison to Little Girl and Bull’s Head, there is a more juvenile quality to the work; it is something that could pass for a child’s toy, partially due to the fact that it is largely constructed from one (he stole the cars from his son, Claude).
My high school art history teacher, in her unit on Picasso’s sculptures, hypothesized a reason for why Picasso may have created such whimsical works of art, after developing a reputation for being a self-involved womanizing painter who had a habit of depicting his lovers in his creations. It is true that even some of his sculptural works have a brazenly sexual purpose that is almost degrading to the woman it was inspired by. However, a large portion of his sculptures, which he rarely exhibited during his lifetime, were these playful, imaginative creations. My teacher, Ms. Salfield, guessed that as a result of his poverty growing up (his father was a fairly unsuccessful painter), Picasso rarely had toys of his own during his childhood. Therefore, when he became rich, and successful, and had established himself as one of the art world’s creative new thinkers, he was finally able to create toys of his own that were noticeably free of the underlying motifs that had first captured the world’s attention. It gives a new light to the purpose of Picasso’s art: while it is easy to see the passionate, often dark side of his personality in his publicly displayed paintings, it is more interesting to investigate the side of him that to this day goes largely undiscussed; the side beneath the impetuous, selfish, domineering painter. In works such as Little Girl Jumping Rope, Bull’s Head, and Baboon and Young, we see the juvenile, playful sculptor, who is creating art for his own happiness. Not only that, but he created a new medium out of the imagination where these sculptures were born.
Media gives a meaning to the work beyond the superficial appearance. Noting how something was made can change the entire purpose behind why it was made; here, for example, Picasso’s creation of a new medium (namely, using garbage to construct a sculpture) can define what the works meant to the artist. The medium of ready-made objects was an innovation to the art world, but kept with a prevalent theme of Picasso’s works: that is, finding an image beyond the easily recognizable. Additionally, this medium shows a purer side to Picasso’s imagination: the childish creativity it takes to look at a bicycle seat and handlebars and see a bull, or to see a toy car and imagine a baboon. For Picasso, the media he used were not garbage; they were small parts to a greater whole that, somehow, could be placed together and appear suited for each other. He produced sculpture, while ignoring the common media; instead of marble or bronze (though most of his works have been recast in bronze for their preservation) he has made sculpture whimsical by using it to redefine scrap.
If the works were made with traditional media, their meanings would be greatly changed; they would be more ordinary than Picasso would probably have ever wanted. Had each of the works above originally been made in marble, they would have lost a certain element of imagination; instead of seeming organically placed together, each element would have felt more blatant; the question would have to be asked as to why Picasso made the little girl’s stomach basket-shaped, when he could have just as easily (and conventionally) given her a regular torso. What is impactful in Picasso’s use of ready-made things as a medium is that you have to examine what each part adds to the whole, making it more realistic while at the same time giving it the whimsical qualities of a toy. The fact that he built, rather than sculpted or chiseled, each sculpture from the ground up, carefully placing items and changing them, makes the creativity behind his sculptures understandable to the viewer, and potentially gives the viewer a better look into the artist behind such a fantastical work.
Examining the media of any invention or work of art changes the reason behind why it was made. Whether for reasons of utility or appearance, the medium adds another dimension to the work, simply because the question has to be asked as to why the artist decided to use certain materials, words, or styles. For the sculptures of Pablo Picasso, the use of ready-made objects gives the works an understandable strangeness, a quality that made his new medium more understandable while maintaining its creativity. Little Girl Jumping Rope, Bull’s Head, and Baboon and Young are three sculptures that, when examined further, show how Picasso was able to create new forms out of used, discarded items that were in no way related to that which they were used to depict. The importance of these works is to hint at a side of Picasso that is not largely publicized, and to illustrate not only his untraditional style, but the imagination required on the part of the artist to produce artwork such as this.